So I don’t know about you but I continued to date my high school sweetheart when I started college. I went off to Syracuse and she stayed in-state at a NJ university. We decided that in spite of the distance and new journeys that our lives would take us on, we were destined to stay together because our love was too great and our bond too strong.
Fast-forward two years and we finally broke up after sophomore year. It was probably at least six months overdue, if not more. We’d not only grown apart but we’d also grown up. We were already different people who wanted different things. All of the weekend trips, the gifts, and the late-night phone calls couldn’t put us back together again.
In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. It was obvious. Statistically, the odds that you’re going to stay with the person you were dating in high school are already minute (though to be fair I know a few couples who have done it), especially when you try to maintain that relationship long distance. Plenty of people had told me as such along the way. I always sensed the doubt behind the eyes of older relatives and family friends when I’d tell them about it. And when it all ended, they knew this day was coming long before I ever did.
Now that I’m older, I see young people going down that same road and I understand what that must have felt like to watch from afar. A slow-motion train disaster you can’t stop. You can try. You can tell them it’s almost certainly not going to work. That you’re going to change. What you want is going to change. It’s healthy to want to meet other people and experience the world. They’ll hear you but they won’t listen. Cause they know better...
This is kinda how I feel about many Syracuse Football fans five weeks into the 2016 season. I know I predicted that we’d finish 5-7, and perhaps we still will, but I think if I’m honest with myself I really wanted to say 4-8. But gosh, were so many of you thinking differently! I saw so many people who assumed we were a 6-6 team, no doubt. Many others expected no less than 7-5. And way too many of you thinking eight wins was a real possibility. Try as I might, there was just no convincing you. Cause you knew better...
And now here we are, exactly where Dino Babers always said we’d be (in a manner of speaking). For a long time now Babers has been talking about how he’s in the midst of a two-year rebuild. Though he’s never said it outright the implication has always been that the 2016 season is going to be a wash. He’s going to be installing an offense and defense to which he does not have the appropriate talent. He has to do so in order to show the incoming talent what’s possible and to make sure the guys still here in 2017 know what they’re doing. Dino knows that by doing so, he is inviting results that will increase opponent scoring opportunities and make it unlikely that his work-in-progress offense will be able to keep up.
This has all been pretty clear from the beginning. Unfortunately, college football fans are a bit like 17-year-olds in love. Once they’ve decided they know what’s going to happen, there’s no talking them out of it.
And that’s how you get the rollercoaster ride that is the 2016 season. We beat Colgate and it seemed to confirm that this offense was UNSTOPPABLE and we’d go bowling for sure. Then Louisville decimated us and we realized WE’RE TERRIBLE and we might not win another game. Then South Florida confirmed it with a second beating. Then we beat UConn and some fans got irrationally confident about how this team had TURNED THE CORNER and 7-8 wins were back on the table. And now, following a 50-33 loss to Notre Dame we’ve all realized how AWFUL this team is again.
Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we still pretending the outcome of the 2016 season matters? Because the hard, unavoidable, somewhat-depressing truth is that it doesn’t.
Sure, if we somehow find a way to go 6-6, which, looking at the remaining schedule you’d have to be a fool to assume will happen, then that’s great. That’s a huge bowl-filled bonus of extra practices and national attention. But...you really shouldn’t be banking on that, you know.
When we win, we’re not suddenly a good team. When we lose, giving up 50-points right now is not the same as giving up 50 points in the past. And to say that Syracuse should have implemented a different system as to not give up 50 points in one game in the middle of the 2016 season misses the point of the 2016 season.
One fact a lot of folks has grabbed onto about Dino Babers is that he likes to play chess.
“I grew up in an area with community centers where you go and guys open them up to have games and play. You play all day and they close and go back home and stay out of trouble. I used to go and play checkers. I can't remember the man's name. He was an older man. I used to come every day and play all day. I got sick and tired of playing checkers. He wanted me to learn how to play chess. I didn't want to learn how to play chess. No one in my family knew how to play. He said, 'If you don't play chess with me, I'm not going to play checkers.' I'd go play checkers, and he wouldn't play. He said, 'I tell you what. 'We'll play one game of checkers first. And then we'll play one game of chess.' I had no idea that chess was unlimited time. I played my one checker game. He was teaching me how to move the chess pieces. We'd play a game that would take all day. I kept figuring it out and eventually turned into a chess player.”
It’s an oversimplified metaphor but that’s how he’s looking at the Syracuse Football program. Like in chess, he’s thinking three moves ahead. Setting things up now that will pay off down the line. He might have to sacrifice some important pieces short-term, but so long as he remains focused on his attack plan, it’ll be worth it.
College football fans root for their sport like they’re playing checkers. We’re constantly just looking for the fastest way to get kinged and win. It’s about taking the clearest route to the other side of your opponent’s board before they get to yours. It’s exciting in the short-term but the payoff ends quickly and then you have to start all over.
You can play checkers in certain places like Ohio State or Florida or LSU and become a powerhouse program. You can’t do that at Syracuse. You have to play chess if you want to find sustained success here. And that means when we rebuild, we rebuild from the ground up. When we rebuild from the ground up, that means we have to wait while everything catches up.
Specifically, it means the talent we have will be able to succeed in short bursts in this offense but doesn’t have the stamina or ability to do it all game. It means the cupboard is bare on defense and we simply need better players than the ones his predecessor was bringing in. It means getting everyone to buy in to a new system to the point where it’s not new anymore, it’s just the system. And it means recruiting guys who are made to be in this program.
All of those things take time and no one should have expected that we’d be able to put the pieces together in 2016. It’s weird if you did.